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Seacology supports sea turtles’ race for survival

April 1, 2020

As divers and snorkelers around the world know, few things rival the experience of seeing a sea turtle up close. The enormous reptiles–the largest of which can grow up to six feet long and weigh three-quarters of a ton–glide through the water with otherworldly ease. And on a nesting beach, one can witness the miracle of hundreds of baby turtles emerging from their buried eggs and clumsily bolting toward the surf.

Unfortunately, many of the same trends that threaten island ecosystems around the world have hit sea turtles particularly hard. Coastal development has upended many of the beaches that they nest in. Eggs are trampled by foot traffic or eaten by pets and invasive species. Discarded fishing lines and other debris constitute a fatal entanglement or choking hazard. And in some places, people still hunt sea turtles and gather their eggs for food. Of the seven species of sea turtle, two are critically endangered, and the rest are classified as endangered or vulnerable.

Over the years, dozens of Seacology projects have helped to protect sea turtles and the habitats they need to survive, from East Africa to the Caribbean.

In the Dominican Republic, we’re working to develop ecotourism in El Limon Lagoon, which is surrounded by nesting grounds for leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtles. As large-scale tourism, a major industry in the country, reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, our project is training local residents to work as rangers to patrol the lagoon. This offers much-needed, sustainable employment opportunities, as well as better enforcement of poaching laws. The project also funds repairs and upgrades for important infrastructure like a jetty and restrooms, which will facilitate kayak tours and other ecotourism activities.

On the island of Carriacou, in Grenada, our project helps to protect four turtle species. Leatherback, green, loggerhead, and the critically endangered hawksbill turtles nest on the island’s beaches. Volunteers monitor the nesting grounds to prevent poaching, help hatchling turtles reach the sea, and remove harmful debris from the area. With a Seacology grant, local women have developed a business “upcycling” discarded nets and sails into products like tote bags. The products have been a hit with both tourists and local university students.

Hawksbill turtle nesting on a Carriacou beach

El Limón Lagoon, surrounded by turtle nesting beaches

In Bangladesh, a project at St. Martin’s Island supported local conservationists working diligently to protect their marine environment. Seacology funded a school building, and our partners pledged to protect nearly 1,500 acres of marine habitat, including turtle nesting grounds. They installed signs demarcating the protected area and guard stations to monitor the nesting grounds. They also put in mooring buoys to protect the coral reef from anchor damage.

Seacology program manager Mary Randolph visited the island and was lucky enough to get to help release turtle hatchlings into the Bay of Bengal. “It was thrilling,” she said. “Our project partners are so dedicated to guarding the eggs–they very carefully move the eggs to a fenced spot on the beach, and sleep in small shelters right next to them.”

Other Seacology projects focus on safeguarding the habitats that provide turtles’ food supply.  Healthy coral reefs have abundant sponges, which hawksbills eat. Green sea turtles graze on seagrass, an increasing focus of Seacology projects. (The “green” in their name refers to the coloring the turles take on from the chlorophyll in the seagrass and algae they eat.) Seagrass is also an important habitat for the crustaceans and fish that are a dietary staple for loggerhead and olive ridley turtles.

An olive ridley hatchling ready to depart for the sea on St. Martin's island, Bangladesh

Green sea turtles get their namesake color from the seagrass and algae they eat. Photo © P. Lindgren